Honoré de Balzac stood at the dividing line between Romanticism and realism. He was inclined toward the fantastic and supernatural and to the exaggeration of normal human types, but his desire to reproduce concrete fact and to visualize the scene or object made him a superb painter of French society in the first half of the nineteenth century. Both of these aspects of his writing are easily observed in Cousin Pons, part of the Scenes from Parisian Life segment of Balzac’s La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1885-1893, 1896).
Balzac’s own interest in the supernatural and hereafter is seen in the discussion of fortune-telling and astrology when Madame Cibot calls on the witchlike Madame Fontaine in her den. Balzac devotes several pages to an analysis of the plausibility of the seer’s art and the reality of certain types of divination. Human beings do not understand everything that exists in the universe, he says, and should not close their eyes to some possibilities simply because they cannot be explained. This idea leads to a belief that is fundamental in Balzac’s philosophy and that played an important part in his writing and in the structure of The Human Comedy: predestination. Balzac believed that the fates conspired to lead human beings to their ultimate destinies. Given the circumstances of people’s backgrounds and the makeup of their characters and factors of their lives, they have no way of avoiding a particular fate. Balzac considered his job to be that of a recorder setting down the causes and effects of the lives and destinies of his characters, and he believed that his method was scientific and objective.
In Cousin Pons, readers see the characters of the old collector Pons and his beloved friend, Schmucke, and how their good and trusting natures are taken advantage of by the avaricious people around them. Given the nature of human beings, it is not surprising that the story works its way to a pathetic and painful conclusion. It would be incorrect to say that Balzac created men and women more horrible than any who lived; Balzac knew very well that people who have been taught that material values are the only important ones will stop at nothing until they have acquired everything they can see within their grasp. The morality or lack of morality in Madame Cibot, Fraisier, Remonencq, and the other characters is the result of many factors, which Balzac draws with his usual skill. None of these people stands outside society; they all are influenced by it...
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